Center for American Progress

Mainstream Media Refuses to Recognize the Elephant in the Room

Mainstream Media Refuses to Recognize the Elephant in the Room

Republican recalcitrance frames virtually every political issue in Washington these days, except in the reporting of those same incidents by the mainstream media.

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Members of the "Save Our News'' coalition rally before delivering a 500,000-signature petition urging the Tribune Company management to reject any offers by the Koch brothers to buy The Los Angeles Times newspaper outside the newspaper's headquarters in Los Angeles, Wednesday, May 29, 2013. (AP/Damian Dovarganes)

The New Yorker’s John Cassidy wrote a nice column following a two-week vacation in which he noted, without surprise, that yes, “the Republican Party’s two-decade-long descent into wacky, quasi-religious, know-nothing nativism,” together with “a deep commitment to outmoded doctrines and superstitions” characterized by “extremism and nuttiness,” remained its defining characteristic. Cassidy’s description, while clever, is old news.

Longtime Republican staffer Mike Lofgren came clean two years ago about his former party being “full of lunatics.” Not long afterward, longtime nonpartisan political analysts Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann pronounced the GOP to be “ideologically extreme; scornful of compromiseunmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” And yet this essential fact, which defines almost all of the parameters of our political discourse, routinely goes unmentioned in the mainstream media’s political coverage—even when it is absolutely central to the story being written.

Consider Paul Farhi’s 1,800-word Washington Post article titled, “Billionaire Koch brothers use Web to take on media reports they dispute.” In it, the author attempts to characterize the conservative billionaire brothers’ energetic efforts to blunt reporters’ stories they would have preferred had not been written. But nowhere in the piece does Farhi take a position on whether the reporters’ or the Koch brothers’ complaints are more accurate. Repeatedly, the authors of the Koch brothers’ critique insist that respected journalists, including especially The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, “Distorts the Facts and Misleads Readers …” (in the words of a Koch Facts blog post). But as the Columbia Journalism Review’s Dean Starkman aptly notes, in a post called “On Koch vs. journalists: he said-she said,” “the Post piece treats the matter as though it were a tennis match, a he said/she said affair, without getting into the key question: did the outlets actually make fact[ual] errors?”

No facts are actually cited in the piece. Anyone who is remotely familiar with The New Yorker’s incredible fact-checking efforts would have a hard time imagining that the Koch brothers’ website could improve on them. And yet the facts—or even the lack of any evidence supporting the Koch brothers’ position—are deemed irrelevant by the reporter for the sake of the battle. Nor does he mention that the brothers routinely deny the existence of man-made global warming and fund a healthy portion of those in politics and the media who take this anti-science position as well.

Meanwhile, Farhi makes note of the fact that, “When Mayer’s article became a finalist for a National Magazine Award in early 2011, Koch Industries took the unusual step of writing to the award’s sponsor, the American Society of Magazine Editors,” to object. “Her article is ideologically slanted and a prime example of a disturbing trend in journalism, where agenda-driven advocacy masquerades as objective reporting,” wrote Koch attorney Mark V. Holden in his letter, which was posted on Koch Facts. “Given these facts, it would be inappropriate for ASME to give Ms. Mayer’s article an award in Reporting.” Fahri then explains, “Mayer was not selected for the reporting award that year.”

All true, but also misleading. I happen to be a member of the jury for that very award. The competition was intense—Michael Hastings’ incredible reporting on Gen. Stanley McChrystal, “The Runaway General” also did not win—but Mayer came as close to winning as an entrant could without actually winning. To Fahri’s implication above, however, the Koch brothers’ complaint was sent long after the final vote had been taken, so it could not have affected the award.

This same unwillingness to face up to the fundamental facts regarding the Republican Party can also be seen in recent coverage of the so-called “nuclear-option” battle in the Senate.

Mainstream superstars such as Time’s Mark Halperin and The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd consistently complain that President Barack Obama has not done enough to force the Republicans to behave sensibly, without ever explaining how this might be done. David Brooks even complained in one column that President Obama should stop being such a “meanie” to Republicans by devoting himself to issues such as the economy where he knows the Republicans cannot help but take positions that “make them look like wackos.”

Some of those “wacko” positions might have been relevant to the reasons that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and the Democrats felt compelled to threaten a change in the Senate rules on official confirmations. Among them, as Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas note:

  • Before President Obama took office, 20 executive-branch nominees were filibustered. Under the Obama administration, 16 have been filibustered.
  • Former Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson faced one filibuster. Sen. Harry Reid has faced more than 400.
  • Republicans aren’t just trying to block nominees; they’re also trying to nullify or change agencies.

Yet you won’t find any mention of the above in yesterday’s front-page New York Times story or in the lead story on Politico’s website. According to Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, Sen. Reid was “sounding like Dr. Strangelove.”

Who, after all, are the journalists representing here? Do they feel they need to be fair to views that are put forth entirely cynically or views based on nothing more than ideology when compared to those that at least make a modicum of sense? Even with this false balance, after all, the American public does not share their commitment to baseless “on-the-one-handism.” According to a recent Quinnipiac University poll, 51 percent of voters believe gridlock is primarily the result of Republican recalcitrance. Just 35 percent blamed it on President Obama’s lack of “personal skills to convince leaders of Congress to work together.”

Much the same can be said about Mark Leibovich’s terrific new book about Washington politics, titled This Town. It tells you almost everything you need to know about Washington except what is most important. For instance, in this lengthy excerpt dealing with Rep. Darrell Issa’s (R-CA) former aide, Kurt Bardella, nowhere do we learn of the foolishness and extremism of the causes into which this allegedly “not much of a true believer in any political cause” threw himself, as if the substance were of no consequence whatsoever.

Mainstream media’s stubborn refusal to face this elephant in room not only purposely misinforms, but it also can actually cost lives. Yet over and over again, top media outlets take no responsibility for allowing their employees and politicians to mislead the public with discredited views, even in matters of public health. ABC just took a step in this dangerous direction with its announcement that it would hire Jenny McCarthy for its program “The View.” McCarthy, Michael Specter notes, “ has spent much of the past ten years campaigning against vaccines—which, it must be said, are the most effective instruments of public health in human history, aside from clean water,” and adding that “ She is not subtle … When people disagree with her views on television, McCarthy has been known to refute scientific data by shouting ‘bullshit.’” What is the journalist’s responsibility here? Here is ABC News icon Barbara Walters on the announcement of the news: McCarthy, she says, “offers a fresh point of view.”

I wonder how many children will contract avoidable diseases because they trusted ABC not to give a daily podium to proven quacks—just as I wonder how many young girls did not get vaccinated for the HPV disease because of Rep. Michele Bachmann’s crackpot opinion, repeatedly stated on television and elsewhere, that it could lead to mental retardation. And I wonder what business the people who make these decisions think they’re in. It certainly isn’t that of informing the public.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, recently released in paperback.

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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